The embassy is a material expression of modern diplomacy, often encompassing more than just a single building, as many countries also support an array of resident and diplomatic missions and consulates.
The work of an embassy and its staff is highly varied, from hosting diplomatic receptions to processing visa applications. Under international law, and specifically the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, host nations are expected to respect the rights and duties of staff attached to embassies. The convention reaffirms the special rights and privileges afforded to diplomatic staff and their buildings, including the right to resist inspection by host countries.
Geopolitically, embassies matter. They have been the scenes of notoriety. Few readers of a certain vintage will forget the shocking shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in April 1984. She was assassinated by someone inside the building and it was not until 1999 that the then leader of Libya, Colonel Gaddafi, finally accepted responsibility. No one was ever charged with the murder and the UK authorities were never able to make an arrest.
Embassies, for much of the Cold War, were also caught up in controversy often being accused of harbouring spies and/or being objects of illegal surveillance. Embassies have also been places of refuge, as demonstrated dramatically in 1979 when the Canadian embassy in Tehran gave protection to six American diplomatic personnel caught up in the US embassy hostage crisis, as depicted in the 2012 film Argo.
A newly-elected Donald Trump reminds us why the location of embassies matters to host states. He is in favour of relocating the US embassy from the coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv, to the historic city of Jerusalem. At present the US has a consulate general in Jerusalem, but it is highly unusual for the embassy to not be located in a capital city. Unwilling to recognise Jerusalem as the historic capital of the state of Israel in 1948, the US choose to locate its embassy elsewhere.
As a result of ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, no country recognises thus far Israel’s claim that Jerusalem is its capital city. The legal and diplomatic status of the city is contested. The controversy is rooted in the legal status of East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel in 1967, which would form the site of a capital city for an independent Palestine. Foreign embassies are overwhelmingly to be found in Tel Aviv, with some countries and other actors, including the Vatican, operating consulates to Jerusalem.
If the US plan did lead to a new embassy in Jerusalem, international observers as well as Palestinian representatives would worry that the contested politics around the city could deteriorate. The newly-appointed US Ambassador to Israel, David Freidman, is widely seen as sympathetic to Israel’s settler policies in the West Bank and mindful of the need for the US to be a close economic and security partner. Israel has approved building permits for more homes in East Jerusalem and a new US embassy would be seen by many as recognising the legitimacy of Israel’s claim that Jerusalem is its capital city.
But we can think about how embassies can work in different ways if we turn our attention to what, say, a Palestinian state might wish to do. If embassies help to confer recognition on host states and their geopolitical ambitions, host states can also facilitate the ambitions of the guest. In January this year, it was announced that President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority met Pope Francis to discuss the creation of a Palestinian embassy in Vatican City. President Abbas expressed his appreciation to the Vatican for facilitating such a development and for being a supporter of a two-state solution.
In November 2012, the Vatican referred to Palestine as a state in the UN debate on accepting Palestine as a non-member observer state. In May 2015, it formally recognised Palestinian statehood. And as part of attempts to promote a peaceful settlement, Pope Francis then invited both Abbas and the late Israeli president, Shimon Peres, to a prayer ceremony.
What is worth bearing in mind is that while the Vatican has expressed its interest in and support for any settlement involving the Holy Land and Jerusalem, there is another element of interest here regarding the recognition of Palestine. In 2015, a UN General Assembly resolution recognised that the Vatican and Palestine, as non-member observer states, should be allowed to raise their flags outside UN buildings. The US and Israel voted against the resolution, arguing it was counter-productive to peaceful negotiations. Others saw it as another step towards the recognition of an independent Palestinian nation-state. What mattered to all parties, therefore, was the manner in which embassies and flags are a crucial element to the politics of recognition.
In their different ways, officials from the Holy See, Palestine, Israel and the US all remind us that embassies are not just buildings. Their work and very existence are integral to the reproduction of the norms and values that inform modern international relations. When embassies shut down, when ambassadors are recalled and diplomats expelled, and when embassies relocate and open elsewhere, we gain fascinating insights into those workings – good and bad.
This was published in the March 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.